We are reportedly months away from the next NBA game. Adam Silver initially stated the league would shut down for 30 days, but the Centers for Disease Control announced its recommendation that for the next eight weeks, any in-person events consisting of 50 or more people should be canceled or postponed. So what are the best options for the NBA when it returns after the coronavirus pandemic? Should owners push to go straight to the playoffs? Should the league adopt the Elam Landing? Cancel the rest of the season? The Crossover staff answers.
The Center for Disease Control’s recommendation of no crowds larger than 50 effectively shutters the NBA until at least mid-May, though that date can be extended and the league won’t consider coming back until things drastically change. If the NBA comes back—I wouldn’t change anything. A full postseason will likely push the NBA calendar into August and I’m dying to see what the ratings look like. I’m a big proponent of the Steve Koonin-fueled push to start the season at Christmas and end it in the late summer. It’s crazy that the NBA has never tried. The argument against such a change is that ratings would slip, but there’s no data to back that up. Boxing used to avoid summer months for the same reason. A few successful summer shows in recent years and poof, promoters are clamoring for July/August fight dates.
It’s an unintended consequence, but forcing the NBA to play summer ball will provide league officials with valuable data. That data could spark a change that could springboard sluggish TV ratings and breathe new life into the league.
I'll preface this by saying I'm not all that optimistic that the season picks back up. It feels like a whole lot to rush everyone back off what seems sure to be a two-month hiatus. To me, it would seem more prudent to go directly into the playoffs rather than make teams play out the final 15 to 20 games—but even then, you’re throwing players into high-intensity game environments after a long hiatus. There’s obviously a financial element to where all parties would like to get back on the court, not to mention from a competitive perspective, so the impetus is clear and also fair. But honestly, I won't be all that upset if we all just chill out until the fall. The whole thing is way beyond basketball, which sounds cliché to emphasize, but there’s a level of pointlessness to this entire thing, and a degree of necessary perspective.
That said, if the NBA does come back, I’d be curious to see if Adam Silver will opt to use these unforeseen circumstances as a testing ground. This could be an interesting opportunity to experiment with some type of shortened playoff format with fewer games. There’s some level of speculation a delay could be a worthwhile reason to try starting next season on Christmas and adjusting the calendar. There’s at least some level of possibility that the league walks away with some degree of intriguing change when this is over. That type of thing at least makes me curious. But do we need basketball back anytime soon? It would be nice, but the priorities need to be in order first.
Let me start by saying I don’t think the NBA will come back this season. It just seems very pie in the sky to me. It’s great that social distancing measures are increasing rapidly across the country, but until coronavirus testing capacity dramatically improves, I think it’s going to be a very long time until the NBA returns. With that in mind, I don’t foresee anything resembling a normal playoffs happening in 2020. But let’s say the NBA can clear all of its players of the virus and somehow there is an allowance for gatherings of some size in the late summer. What should the league do? I propose a 30-team tournament, single elimination, for a new trophy not named the Larry O’Brien. Use the Elam Ending, and let’s get weird. The tournament should last no longer than a week, and should take place in the same city to minimize risk. Maybe play without fans as well.
Ultimately, I don’t think a traditional playoffs will serve the 2020 season. The NBA, for health and logistical concerns, should look for something quick that can allow them to focus on ensuring a safe start to next season. The tournament will still be a welcome distraction, will still make teams and players plenty of money (imagine the sponsorships!), and while it won’t crown a proper champion, some team will still go home with a trophy and a form of bragging rights. It’s a win for fans, and maybe somewhat safer alternative then aiming for something normal. A unique problem calls for a unique solution. This will almost certainly never happen, but if Adam Silver wants to get creative, I’m here for him.
What should the NBA do when it returns? Tough question, because we have no idea when it might return. Best case—and I say this only as a guy who reads the internet, as opposed to being a guy who went to med school—seems like mid-May. Assume players need two weeks minimum to gear up once they’re cleared to resume basketball activities, and we’re looking at June before games might begin.
Jumping into a truncated playoff system is only going to have the effect of—in the eyes of some hot-takers, at least—cheapening the championship. Say what you will about the NBA’s seemingly never-ending postseason: No one can accuse the system of giving the winner a clear and easy path. It’s nothing if not thorough. But if we start trying to cram a two-month postseason into a couple of weeks, we’re going to have best two-out-of-three series and games played on consecutive nights, and it’s just going to feel rushed and no one will be happy.
So here’s what I propose: Ditch the Larry O’B for this year. Declare that we’re not crowing a champ. Instead, bring out another trophy. Name it in honor of all the Good Samaritans who have donated money to arena workers and done what they can to raise awareness. (Let the Raptors keep their championship trophy for a year—it was Canadian scientists who isolated the virus; this can be our thanks to that great nation.) Stage a tournament that’s fun, that feels like an All-Star Game that people are taking seriously. Throw in a four-point shot, or use the Elam Ending or something. Get arena workers back on the job. Give fans a chance to get out of their homes. Donate the profits to charity.
MLB canceled the World Series in 1994. The NHL nixed the Stanley Cup 11 years later. In those cases, greed kept the sports from crowing a champ. In this case, though, the empty line on the list of NBA champs would be a reminder of the teams coming together to make the best of a bad situation—and maybe having a little fun in the process.
If the opportunity presents itself for NBA games to again be played this season, it may be in the best interest of the league to branch directly into the postseason. The race for the No. 8 seed in the West was shaping to be a fun one, but it seems there is little time to spare for end-of-season scenarios. Adam Silver and the league will have to keep the 2020-21 season in mind with its plans to not branch too far into the summer, and a happy medium between maximizing time and keeping fair competition will be a tough balance to attain. Alterations to postseason play may be needed, such as five-game series or creative seeding, but a traditional playoff format would be the best case scenario if games commence. With much unknown, fans will be overjoyed just to see a game again—but crowning a champion is always the goal, and a jump straight to the postseason may be the best route if games begin in two month's time.
I think it's too early to weigh in on whether the NBA should cancel the season, so let's make our recommendations based on the assumption the league will actually return in June. One change I'd like to see? Shorten the first round.
This may seem impractical as owners would likely loathe the idea of surrendering playoff revenue, but the combination of a long layoff and a shortened first round could create ripe conditions for an upset. I'm frankly a fan of the league's potential revised scheduled. Starting on Christmas and running much of the season alongside the MLB has always made more sense than battling football. Make a tweak to the first round, start the season on Christmas, and the next decade of the NBA could see a continued boom in interest and revenue.
The NBA has a multitude of questions to answer in the coming weeks and months about how to handle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Purely on the scheduling front, ESPN reported Sunday night that owners are preparing a plan to finish the season without fans, picking up play in mid-to-late June. While even that timeline feels full of uncertainty, it would frankly be hard to fault the league if it did cancel the season in its entirety with all that is going on. Perhaps the NBA could also reconfigure the playoff format this year so that maybe fewer teams make the postseason bracket or make it so that initial series are best-of-five instead of best-of-seven. Pushing a potential season late into August would have clear ramifications on the Olympics (if there was one) and into next year.
I don’t want to say the NBA should do anything. None of us knows how this will unfold and since play has already been halted, I don’t see any harm in waiting to see before taking further action in that regard. Ultimately they should do what is best for the public health of course. Which I would assume means if the league is able to return at all, it will be without fans. With that said I’m hopeful the season can be salvaged and how it happens is probably dependent on the timeline. Skipping right to the playoffs would be fine since there shouldn’t be any
Perhaps this could be the time to experiment though. Try a couple Elam Ending games as warmups before playoffs start to see how it works in regular season format. Creativity is going to be needed by all and the league could use the time off to think about some schedule and style changes they want to implement. It’d be much easier to rollout something different during unprecedented times.